INTERVIEW: ‘We never quite know the inside of any love story’: Silvia Kwon on Van Gogh’s early-career relationship and letters that inspired her upcoming novel

Silvia Kwon was the recipient of The Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship for the MA Creative Writing Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia in 2017/18. 

Having had her first novel, The Return, published by Hachette Australia in 2014, Kwon was working away on her second novel – a fictional account of Vincent Van Gogh’s love affair with a prostitute, Sien Hoornik, during the early years of his career in The Hague – when she applied for the Creative Writing MA at the UEA. Having been accepted and awarded the MBT scholarship, Silvia, along with her husband and son, moved from Melbourne, Australia, and settled in Norwich, England where she lived and studied for a year in 2017-8. Four years later, Silvia and her family are back in Melbourne, her manuscript is complete and due to be published in Australia and New Zealand in the coming months. We sat down with Silvia to find out more about her new novel, her writing journey and her experience studying for her MA.  

What drew you to this topic and story?

The journey began a year before I started my course at the UEA. I was on a family holiday in Europe, and I found myself in Amsterdam, doing the obligatory tour of the Van Gogh Museum. He wasn’t an artist I was particularly interested in during my years studying Art History, simply because his work is so ubiquitous. I’ve been in outback Australia and stayed in motels whose walls were adorned with prints of his work. He’s so popular, so well known, and I think the story of his life, especially his later years, has really overshadowed his work. 

I wandered into the museum not feeling terribly excited but feeling that this was a museum I should visit while I was in Amsterdam. I had anticipated to spend only about two hours there, but I was there for the whole day. The museum is a trove of information and resources that surprised me. Of course, there were the artworks, but also information that pertained to the relationships he had with his family and friends. 

One thing I learned about his life while I was there – and that fascinated me – was his romantic relationship with a woman [Sien] in his early years as a struggling artist in The Hague. I had never known that, and I don’t think a lot of people know about her. We’re all familiar with his break down, we’re all fascinated with his relationship with his brother, and with his letters, but I really had no knowledge of his early career. It piqued my curiosity, and I began to dig around for further information. What I discovered completely blew me away. He rescued this woman from the street, fell in love with her despite her background, despite the fracturing it caused with his family. She had two children as well, so he was like a pseudo-father figure as well as a husband-figure, and that made me realise that he had a very rich, short, but intense life. He wasn’t just a tragic figure. He was hungry for experience, and he didn’t really shy away from taking on the world and going against his family and his friends to experience love. It was quite courageous, I thought. I then went back and read the letters he wrote to his brother during his near two-year relationship with Sien. These letters were my blueprint for this project, but I soon realised that I had to be near The Hague and Holland to be able to properly research it. 

I had always dreamed of doing [the MA] course at UEA, but I had a child who was 10 or 11 at the time and I had a life here [in Melbourne], so I really didn’t know how to pull it off. Then I applied for the scholarship and that really tipped the balance and gave me a genuine reason to present the case to my family and say, “I have to go… you’ll just have to come with me.” So, we went on this wild adventure. If it hadn’t been for the scholarship, I don’t know if I’d have gone. 

How did you approach fictionalising a version of a real relationship, and using historical material to create fiction?

There is so much already known about Vincent, he is such a large historical figure, and people who are interested in his work seem to have their own take on his story. And so I approached the story with a certain trepidation, but I was also keen to avoid the usual treatments, which are either hagiographical or tragically dismissive – the guy who cut off his ear. I wanted a nuanced, balanced and honest appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses as a man, which I felt was so important here, in his most intimate partnership. Because his letters lay bare his version of the relationship, I wanted to burrow into the story from her point of view – what was it like to live him? So, I drew on his letters to try and look at the story from a romantic angle, because I really believe they fell in love. It was not a three, or six-month fling; they were together for nearly two years, not an insignificant time. 

When I read third hand accounts of this period in his life, I was a little bit annoyed. Especially the accounts that were written by men; they seemed to dismiss Sien because Vincent, at the end of the relationship, throws up his hands and says, “I tried to help her, but she’s beyond salvation”. But we all know – as any mature adult who has experienced a romantic relationship knows – when you’re breaking up with someone, it’s never that straightforward. I was surprised that all these historians believed Vincent – they just took his word. I had to trust my instincts about these matters, and muster my own courage to back myself, to call out what I sensed beneath the history – if you like. It is my belief, we never quite know the inside of any love story, but that was an important driving-factor for me – to look at the story from her point of view. Being annoyed helped because it motivated me to tell that other story and, as a woman and mother, I could relate to her difficulties. Vincent was a very proud man, and I intuited that I needed to read between the lines since he was not in a position to be truthful. And he just couldn’t be – due to his dependence on Theo. I wanted to tell Sien’s story, which I don’t think anyone has really heard. That kept me going. 

And to answer your question about using historical material, I was grateful for his letters. They often gave vivid details of the relationship, and it really formed the bedrock of my research. But I was also very aware that they were filtered through his particular lens, because he had very specific motives and needs for his relationship with Sien. What was lacking was her story, and so for that I had to go beyond his letters to research her story – look at prostitution in The Hague, the slums there, the gender attitudes of the time, the religious climate.  And being in Norwich, and 45-minutes from Holland, I made the most of this geography, especially since I was due to return to Australia at the end of the course. I spent two weeks in The Hague in February; and the story starts in February or end of January, so I got to experience the bitter cold of a Northern European winter which I’m sure helped contribute to the creation of mood and atmosphere so central to the story’s backdrop. And I was enormously privileged to have had storage room access at the Van Gogh Museum, and got to spend an entire day with his work from this period and that helped me understand how lovingly he rendered Sien in many of his drawings of her. An unforgettable experience!

What genre or genres would you place your novel within? And what are the key themes you touch on?

Women’s fiction and historical fiction. It’s very much a woman’s story.  I think some men would be able to relate to it, but I think a lot of women would really be able to relate to it. The central theme is certainly a romantic one. About what draws two people together, what they offer and take from each other, about the stories they tell themselves, and the delusions that eventually become exposed over the course of the relationship. But I feel the story also deals with the often-overlooked costs borne in making art, both personal and financial. Because it was difficult for Sien to live with such a single-minded, but also an ill-tempered artist as Vincent. I have no doubt, having done my research, she endured a lot. And no one previously has suggested this. She is his model, muse, lover, housekeeper, and there’s also the two young children. And a woman of her rank had so little choice in that society, which was very austere. We, as the audience, are the beneficiaries of his artistic legacy, but at the time, the struggle for him, for them, as a couple was real, and quite difficult and harsh. I dare say even Theo had a trying time living with his brother for those two years in Paris. Hence Vincent’s flight to Arles. 

You mentioned that you started the research and the process before you started the MA. How did you work on the novel during your MA?

I completed a very, very rough draft of about 45,000 words while I was in Norwich during that year. It was very rough, but I did manage to workshop a few passages from that draft with my cohort. That year really helped me to frame story. But the psychological excavations and the peeling back of the emotional layers were done when I got back to Australia. 

Did you find that you were researching and writing simultaneously, or did you do the bulk of your researching before sitting down to write? 

I did both. It was very much an organic process. I read his letters, which formed the backbone of the research, as well as a couple of biographies before I sat down to write. Then whatever piqued my curiosity, I would go off and do some reading and take copious notes to have next to my desk whilst I was writing. One of the things that I had on my laptop that I referred to constantly was this simple price list of goods and services that were being charged in Holland at the time, for bread and things like that. Vincent was constantly short of money, and he didn’t know how to manage it, so money was quite important to the story but of course it’s not something that I foreground – I just had to know about it. I find that with this kind of thing, I’m led by a detective-like intuition, and if I find myself thinking that’s something I really need to know then I will go and look into it. But there was a lot of research that didn’t end up on the page, simply because it wasn’t necessary, but the information was still very helpful in a removed sense – I just needed to be aware of it in my subconscious if you like. When you’re in a role and in the throes of telling a story and it is building up within you, you have no choice but to chase the research because you are hungry for the information that will enable you to tell the story properly and convincingly. 

Reflecting on the time since your first novel was published in 2014 “The Return”, what impact has the MA and writing your second novel had on your practise and writing?

I was a bit startled that the first manuscript got picked up, simply because it was the first piece of fiction I’d written. I wasn’t one of those people who scribbled away for most of their life. I’d worked in publishing but had never written something of my own. After I had a child I developed health issues and couldn’t return to my day job and soon got bored being stuck at home, so I created my own work for stimulation. I was very grateful to have had my first novel published, but I certainly didn’t treat it in the same way as I treated this book. But this was also, probably, because when that book got published, I actually had to take myself seriously as a writer, and that gave me the confidence to take on something as big as this, and sharpened my goals a writer.

The MA really dovetailed with that desire. So it was just fantastic that I had this novel somewhat underway by the time I was accepted into the course, and of course having that year to travel, research and learn about the craft of writing was so gratifying – and timely. Writing a novel, for me, is like climbing a mountain. I’m gripping onto the edge and trying my best not to slip. There were many moments when I thought, “I don’t know if this is going to come off”. It was very touch and go and felt far more arduous than my first book, simply because I was trying to do more and excavate a very difficult story. I knew how it ended and I knew how it began, and from Vincent’s letters I could see what happened at various moments in their relationship, but there were huge gaps as well. It was a very dense and layered story about two people, and at times I felt quite overwhelmed by the emotional strain of the story. So much has happened since the first book to this book, certainly in terms of my learning to be a writer. But I feel post-MA and now with this book completed, I am becoming more confident of my skills and range as a writer.

And what would you say you gained the most from the MA and your time in Norwich?

I became much more self-aware as a writer. It made me pay attention to the craft of writing, being in those brutal workshops and forced to reckon with all the technical skills that a writer needs to master. It was always great though because I was surrounded by people who were doing the very same thing. It was a pleasure. It was just a joy to be able to talk about writing, to talk about each other’s work and to really be immersed in this wonderful world of ideas and expression. It was so stimulating. I just loved it. 

What impact did the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship have?

It helped enormously. Being thousands of miles away and starting up another life for 12-months and setting up home there had its personal and financial challenges and the scholarship helped to fund that process, so I was very grateful. It also allowed me to travel to The Hague and stay there for two weeks and do the research I’d been craving. I spent time in the archive office in The Hague and in the library looking at books and films that covered that era and just tried to immerse myself in that city. 

Have you ever considered how support for writers could be improved or where it is lacking? About how organisations like the trust can be more supportive?

As for any struggling writers, the financial one is probably the most important one. To be able to write a work of fiction takes an enormous amount of time and energy. So to have had the opportunity to take 12-months out to simply focus on my writing was just amazing. I found there was a lot of support in the Norwich community and the UEA community. I felt very well looked after. Everyone there seems genuinely excited about writing and books, and very supportive of writers in general.

Perhaps one way the Trust could be more supportive is to allow writers the opportunity for an ongoing dialogue/relationship with the Trust as their careers develop post-MA, which seems precisely what the Trust has in mind for the future, and the purpose of this interview. 

So, after you finished your MA, you returned to Australia to finish your novel in 2018. It has been an eventful four years globally. How have you found those years completing your manuscript and how has your writing been impacted by these events?

Funnily enough, I got less done during those lockdown weeks and months, simply because I had my family around all the time, and I need isolation to work. Normally, I’m allowed that during the day for a few hours but because my son was doing online-schooling and my husband was working from home, I had them at home 24/7, so it impacted negatively on my output- as much as I love them! I do feel that I probably could have finished the manuscript a year to 18-months earlier if it weren’t for the pandemic. At the same time, I think lockdown also helped the work because there were weeks when I couldn’t look at it for whatever reason, so you do then come back to it with fresh eyes. 

There were both good and bad things about the last four years, but what I learnt is that a work takes what it needs. You just can’t predict it. Even though you have these goals – that you’ll get the draft done by this point, and get the editing done by this point, you cannot really impose that kind of discipline to it. You can only impose the discipline of effort and time and whatever happens within that time, you need to be open to it. 

You mentioned that you like to be in isolation to write – do you have a favourite place or favourite setting?

I do have a study that I use at home, but when I got back [to Australia] I took out a writing desk at a studio that took me out of my domestic life for twelve months [in 2019]. That’s when the rough draft became a fully-fledged draft. I’m not very good in busy, noisy environments and I had the desk and studio mostly to myself. I’m quite good at keeping the world out, and that is – to me – the key to getting the work done.

Which authors/writers do you admire the most?

I loved Hillary Mantel’s novels about Cromwell. I am a huge fan of Deborah Levy – I’ve read all of her books. I also admire Margaret Duras, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Carson McCullers, the Russians. One of my favourite writers is a Frenchman from the 1800s, Guy de Maupassant.

For the research I read a few French authors from the 1800s simply because Vincent was reading them at the time. They were also very good at setting the historical and cultural scene for me. Vincent spent quite a bit of time in a Belgian coal-mining town or village not long before he met Sien, so I read Zola’s novel [Germinal] about the coal miners in Belgium and that novel then helped me to understand that world. I also read Middlemarch [George Eliot] because Vincent was reading Middlemarch at the time, and Dickens as well. It was all a pleasure, to be honest. 

And what was the last great book that you read?

A novella by an Irish writer called Claire Keegan [Small Things Like These] about a very traumatic period in Irish history which saw unwed young mothers being put in convents and forced to work. But Keegan is very clever because she tells this story not from the point of view of the girls or the women, but from an outsider, someone who is aware of what is going on and whose own personal life was impacted by a similar story to these girls’. His own mother was unwed and he’s a product of his mother’s bearing out of wedlock, but things turned out ok for her because she had a kind employer who took her in and helped raise him. But he lives in the same town as these girls and is aware that they are not as fortunate as his mother. It was quite a powerful short novel. 

Finally, what is next for you – do you have any ideas brewing for the next novel?

Well, I am trying to steer clear of historical novels as I’ve become aware of the amount of research one needs to do. I have this urge to write a very contemporary plot-driven novel, more of a thriller or action-driven novel, but I don’t know if that’s just a reaction against this recent novel I’ve finished and whether such a project would sustain me as a writer. Writing a novel is quite a demanding and drawn out process and you need to be engaged with what you’re doing because there’s nobody there telling you that you must do this. So, I suspect this is just a temporary urge. 

I have a more emotionally-troubled, psychologically-driven novel in mind, again about a relationship – a marriage – but in contemporary Melbourne. It’s been bubbling away in the back of my mind for some time, so I might pull that to the front and see if I can put that on boil.

What do you love about literature?

What I love about literature is the access to a secret kind of world that is a writer’s imagination. This silent relationship you have with another, in this case a writer who offers up a new world to you, and invites you, the reader, to consider all the different layers and complexities of that world. I just love this cerebral connection. I also love the solitary act of reading, and the sheer joy of sentences, the syntax, the rhythm, even punctuation that brings alive a world of characters, and their stories. Although, audiobooks and podcasts have now expanded the ways in which you consume a book, for me, it’s still the hardcopy, the pages that enthral me.

Name: Silvia Kwon
Institution/Course: University of East Anglia, MA Creative Writing (Prose Fiction)
Year: 2017/18

Words by: Jessica Bradbury